The Morse code for the letter V corresponds to the first four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In a twist of poetic irony, the Allied powers used this code, inspired by a German composer, as a symbol of resistance against the Germans during World War II. The dot-dot-dot-dash thus became a musical motif and radio stations started their broadcasts with the famous sound of fate knocking at the door.
As Shakespeare might have said, what’s in a few musical notes? Apparently quite a lot. The power of music is so feared by authoritarian regimes that they censor artistic expression. Mao’s China outright banned the arts that did not serve the ideological needs of the state. In the Soviet Union, censors had to approve all music for publication. Music has long been an avenue for profound expression of resistance during wartime.
In 1942, Shostakovich premiered his Seventh Symphony during the Siege of Leningrad. Forsaken by the state and under siege from Germany, people of Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg) cooked leather for food, hunted cats and dogs, and died of starvation, but they still turned to music. In that moment, music became a powerful symbol of resistance. It gave hope and uplifted the morale of the besieged and served as an act of defiance against the besiegers.
Interestingly enough, Shostakovich wrote the symphony in response to the war. However, rather than a purely heroic piece, the symphony was just as much a rebuke of Stalin and the Soviet Union as the reaction to the German invasion. Yet, even after the war ended, Soviet officials used the performance as propaganda and a whole generation came away believing it to be a symbol of Soviet greatness.
The use of music in war is nothing new, only the methods have changed. In The Art of War, Machiavelli praises the virtues of the trumpet as a tactical tool for field signals that can pierce through the noise of battle. Before then, Romans used musical instruments as tools for communication and military formations, even to inflame the army. Through hymns, marches, and martial music, the arts represented an integral part of the military.
It was the popularization of music in the 19th century that ushered in a new wave of expression as resistance. A move away from a thematic element of religion in the previous couple of centuries and no longer confined to a limited audience, artistic expression sprouted wings. While classical music might seem archaic from today’s vantage point, it was then contemporary and even avant-garde. Pianist and composer Franz Liszt was a rock star, the Bob Dylan of his time. He revolutionized the art of performance and in what German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed Lisztomania, his fans would fight to save locks of his hair.
Composers drew on this newfound access to a mass audience and music transformed into a complex language of its own, into a language of resistance and political expression. In 1804, Beethoven completed a symphony dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte and the Frenchman’s embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution. In the same year, however, upon learning that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, Beethoven famously scratched out Napoleon’s name from the manuscript and changed the title to “Symphony Eroica”.
While Beethoven’s symphony could be seen as post-Revolution commentary, Frederick Chopin wrote the “Revolutionary Etude” as a direct response to the failed 1831 Polish uprising against Russia. In fact, his music became such a symbol of nationalism that in 1941, Chopin was blacklisted in Poland, even though Berlin radio stations continued to play his music. Selective censorship of Chopin’s music in his homeland highlighted German fears that his music could incite Polish nationalism.
Cognizant of the musical influence, governments actively used music as a tool of propaganda and psychological warfare. National hymns embody the simplest and the most effective propaganda method of promoting patriotism. Shaping content and direction of music can also help build a narrative around a revolution. Napoleon III commissioned Hector Berlioz to compose the Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale to celebrate the 1830 Revolution. The result turned into one of the most heroic pieces ever composed.
On the flip side, a popular piece could come to symbolize a revolution. In an iconic scene from the movie Casablanca, the band erupts into La Marseillaise and drowns out the singing of the Nazi officers in the bar. In that moment, the French hymn becomes a unifying symbol of resistance.
All this speaks to an important function of music in war, be it classical music or today’s popular music. Consider the impact of anti-war songs during the Vietnam War. The songs underpinned the political movement and acted as a unifying force to help sustain the anti-war sentiment. Consider then the potential of a song to ignite a movement and spark a revolution, hence the tendency of current authoritarian regimes to censor music.
Rebellions are built on hope and music helps fuel that hope. Blasting music will not break a siege, topple a government, or change security policy, but it will strengthen and inspire the people to do so. It is this potential to inspire action that makes music a powerful symbol of war and resistance.
Pikria Saliashvili works in Washington, DC and writes regularly on security and democracy topics. She received a MA in International Affairs from the George Washington University. She also holds a BA in Music.